In light of today's steroid scandals, it's both ironic and nostalgic to revisit a time when a baseball player's worst sins were womanizing and drinking. The great Babe Ruth was guilty as charged on both counts, and Leigh Montville's The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth makes no attempt to sugarcoat the Bambino's human failings. Montville, a former senior writer for Sports Illustrated, fully acknowledges the efforts of Ruth's previous biographers even drawing upon some of their primary sources then proceeds to take his own singular aim on the subject. Alas, many of the details of Ruth's early life are shrouded or not fully documented, and after he'd become a national sports hero of unparalleled wealth and fame, events were often filtered through a contemporary press that seemed more determined to inflate the man's image rather than publicize the unbridled truth. Montville makes a stylish effort to bridge the gap between fact and fiction, and he further engages the reader by effectively putting Ruth in the context of his peers and the cataclysmic times that spanned the First World War, the Roaring '20s and the Great Depression. Yet the most compelling episodes concern the Babe's formative years, most of them spent at St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore, where a spartan order of Catholics essentially raised him, taught him baseball and facilitated his opportunity to turn pro, thus giving rise to a Horatio Alger story on a grand scale. Montville vividly presents the heroic details of Ruth's playing career, making it clear that, despite all the home-run-hitting prowess that changed the face of the game and set records that stood for decades, Ruth was also a dominant pitcher who could have had a Hall of Fame career in that position as well. What plainly emerges here is that Ruth was a simple, unreflective guy with huge appetites, who loved playing baseball, being a celebrity and spending his money on the good life. Montville captures these essentials with sufficient color, while also effectively describing the Babe's inevitable professional decline and his bittersweet final years outside of the game, where he lingered as a tame curiosity figure before dying of cancer in 1948 at the age of 53.
Martin Brady writes from Nashville.